Policy Papers

The Contending Allies: What the Trade Unions and the Labour Party can learn from the experiences of their predecessors between the Wars

Dr Jim Moher |

  • RSS Feed Icon

Executive Summary

  • It is important to realise that, even at its height between the Wars, the relationship between the Labour Party and the trades union movement was often tense.
  • Both Labour and the unions need to find ideas and programmes that could strike chords with modern workers, as deep as those which appealed to working class voters in the first decades of the twentieth century.
  • The record of MacDonald administration of 1924 suggests that a wide gap between the outlook of party and union leaders is a source of weakness for a Labour government.
  • The bitter divisions which accompanied the downfall of the second Labour Government in 1931 further emphasise the dangers of Labour failing to maintain an effective working relationship with the trades unions.
  • The now largely forgotten National Council of Labour in the 1930s provides an instructive model of how an effective working relationship could be sustained and strengthened in the future, as it led to the strong Labour presence in the coalition government of 1940 and its highly successful majority administrations from 1945 to 1951.


Fallings out between the British trade unions and the Labour Party have been at the core of the misfortunes of the Labour governments formed since 1924, when Labour formed its first minority government. Relations have wavered from ‘umbilical’ to distant or of a ‘poor relations’ variety (during the Blair era). With the recent change from the Corbyn to the Starmer leadership, relations with some major unions seem again to have become difficult. Yet the nature of their mutual dependence over such a long period, (Jack Jones, once described the Labour-union condition as ‘Divorce, never! Murder often’), suggests that efforts will again be made to restore some semblance of unity in time for the next general election. Both sides blame each other (with some justification) for the failures of the past, but at its root there has been an inability to agree on how to address core economic issues, such as incomes policy and recipes for government intervention in the economy.  


Can historians help?

In analysing the rich history of past Labour/Union relationships, historians should be able to help, as many are sympathetic to the aims of Labour and the unions. However, in practice, unions, like employers and politicians, do not usually look to historians to shed light on their current policy dilemmas or decisions. Interestingly, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may have started a different trend in commissioning Professor John Bew, (Attlee’s recent biographer), to write the government’s foreign and defence security review? However, too often the real lessons of history are either not learned or buried. Unions, though they pay more lip-service to history than politicians - all now tend to pay more attention to opinion polls – have preferred ‘history as legend’ than as a guide to future practice.

So, while there is a new pragmatic professionalism about many union officials today, the speeches of union activists and leaders at policy-making Conferences are still studded with emotional reference to the inequities of the past, such as, the Combination laws (substitute today, ‘the Thatcher anti-union laws’); the Martyrs of Tolpuddle and ‘Black Friday’(‘betrayal’ of the miners in 1921 by the other transport unions), and their modern equivalents, since the defeat of the miners and printers in the 1980s.

Yes, these are references to very real historical experiences in unions’ long history of struggle from illegality to freedom from prosecution and fines during strikes. Labour, the party of ‘alternative society’ socialist ideas, has its own pantheon of heroes (Keir Hardie) and villains (Ramsay MacDonald), though of late years its abandonment of ‘Clause IV’ (nationalisation) policies, calls to ‘repeal all anti-union laws’ and other cherished aspirations of fundamentalist socialists, has left Labour with rather a ‘thin brew’, ideologically-speaking.  So, there is a need on both sides to find ideas and programmes which again could strike as deep chords with modern workers, as those original appeals once did with their ‘cloth cap’ predecessors. After all, their problems remain not so different today, although for the more Individualistic working class in the ‘Red Wall’, those slogans and shibboleths do not ring as loud.


The Labour Government of 1924

Although most commentators tend to focus on more recent periods of Labour government, the short-lived (just 8 months), first period of Labour office in 1924 is a particularly clear example of where the failure to ‘gel’ with the unions, disclosed the real fault-lines of the alliance formed so optimistically in 1900. A major cause of the failure of that experiment was the mindset distance between the Labour leadership and their union counterparts in terms of objectives and means.

The parliamentary leadership around Ramsay MacDonald, simply sought to show that they were ‘fit to govern’, whereas the Labour movement outside expected serious instalments of Labour’s social programme to be addressed immediately, despite the very minority position of the Parliamentary Labour Party in that House of Commons. However, my examination of the internal workings of the trade union leaderships, especially the change of leadership at the Trades Union Congress which coincided with the formation of the Labour government in 1924, suggests that experiment was unlikely to have been sustained. Through the lens of a new arrival at TUC HQ, Walter Citrine, as Assistant General Secretary in January 1924 (Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union, JGM Books, 2021), we see that mutual lack of confidence and shared objectives, unfold.

Sure, as has been noticed by many other historians, Labour’s minority government status and MacDonald’s absorption with foreign and international affairs of the country and empire, allowed internal Labour movement relations to get worse. But the lesser-noticed failure of MacDonald and his Ministers to attempt any serious liaison or meeting of minds with the new TUC leadership because of their seemingly deep ideological differences may have been equally causative of their failure to get on.  

The 1924 case is especially worthy of more attention, than its short duration is seen to have merited from historians.  MacDonald and his close circle – Arthur Henderson, Phillip Snowden, Sidney Webb, John Clynes, Jimmy Thomas and Margaret Bondfield (the latter three having been senior union & TUC officials just before they took up office), were attempting to establish the Parliamentary Labour Party as the second party of government. This made them over-sensitive to the moods and indiscipline of the bitterly divided Liberals (Lloyd George v Herbert Asquith - due to the war). However, the Liberals were still electorally in contention, with over 4 million voters supporting them. Labour had only 191 MPs out of a House of Commons total of 607 after the general election of December 1923 (the Libs were down to 158). The 258 Tories, deeply divided over tariff policy which brought them down in 1922, led their new leader, Stanley Baldwin calmly allowed the pro-free trade Labour Party to take office as a closely watched minority government.

However, the new Left leadership at the TUC, led by a mixture of communist and syndicalist-minded General Council members, such as Alf Purcell MP (furniture trades), George Hicks (builders), A. B. Swales (engineers), John Bromley MP (loco drivers) and Ben Tillett (dockers and road transport workers), ably served by General Secretary, Fred Bramley (assisted enthusiastically by Walter Citrine, who had just arrived), were in an uncompromising mood. They had not expected a Labour government and having just replaced key right-wing figures on the General Council which MacDonald had appointed to his government (such as, J.R. Thomas MP (railway workers) and Margaret Bondfield MP (General and Municipal and women workers), a gulf opened up between the two leaderships.  Arthur Cook’s election as Secretary of the Mineworkers Federation that year reinforced that gulf.

MacDonald would hardly give ‘the time of day’ to Bramley and Purcell, let alone try to win them over. For their part, union members were in a ‘bolshie’ mood, seeking to claw back in wage demands what they had lost in the deep depression of 1920-22. Leading this militancy was the ‘new boy on the block’, Ernest Bevin, who wanted to prove himself to his newly formed mega-union leadership, the Transport & General Workers Union. First, he closed the docks all over the country and screwed a large wage increase from the Port employers. Next, it was the T&GWU’s London tram and bus-workers who entered the fray, causing many thousands of Londoners to walk to work. When MacDonald tried to plead with him, Bevin’s response was to threaten to call out the tube-workers as well!

This hardline, syndicalistic confrontational style of Bevin’s naturally did no good for relations generally and the TUC had little influence with him. MacDonald was about to invoke the hated Emergency Powers Act of 1920 (to replace strikers in essential services), which infuriated all the unions and the TUC. In the event, the employers gave in, but the damage was done. Their clashes started a life-long vendetta between Bevin and MacDonald which would bedevil union/party relations for a decade. MacDonald now had a deeply dismissive attitude towards the new TUC leadership. In fact, like many Labour leaders since, he seems to have developed a strong aversion to unions in their collec­tive capacity and was totally opposed to their use of industrial muscle for political purposes. He preferred to take advice from one of the hardest line employers’ Sir Allan Smith of the Engineering Employers Federation, who had just led the lock-out of a quarter of a million engineers in a bitter three­-month dispute, which hammered the engineering and other unions (including Citrine’s electrical union).

The moral of the story, was surely that both sides needed to meet regularly and openly to thrash out differences and agree dispute-regulation procedures which the TUC, then emerging as an influential centre for the unions under Walter Citrine, could enforce. Whether that would have been possible at that time is doubtful, as union leaders like Bevin and Purcell, (and to an extent, Citrine), were in the grip of a belief in the power of industrial action to achieve concessions from governments. On the other side, MacDonald’s Ministers (many former union officials!), were overawed by MacDonald’s considerable reputation as one who had helped build the Labour Party, kept its pacifist conscience during the war and had major presence on the hustings.

It would take the defeat of the General Strike two years later to bring home to Bevin (and Citrine), the limitations of purely industrial power, especially as they had no revolutionary intentions. Ironically, as Minister of Labour in the coalition government years later, Bevin became a model of State and industrial orthodoxy. Politically also, such accommodation would have proved very difficult, with the Tory press of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook pouncing on/manufacturing, any ‘evidence’ that the unions were ‘dictating’ to the Party. Yet these were the real parameters which the powerful Labour movement of that time operated in.

The 1924 Labour government fell after only 8 months, as the Tories and Liberals withdrew their tepid support from it over a different issue altogether – the first trade agreement with the Soviet Union. MacDonald’s had also been the first western government to recognise the Soviet Union, which should have got him some credit from the very pro-Soviet TUC, but it didn’t. He mishandled the notorious Zinoviev Red Letter forgery, which was blazoned in the Daily Mail and the press generally during the election. In fact, Labour didn’t do so badly in the November 1924 general election, putting on over a million votes to 5.4million, though they were down 40 or so seats. It was the Liberals who ‘copped it’, losing 118 seats and being consigned to half-a-party status thereafter with 40. Labour would be back to challenge for government office in four years, having patched things up with a chastened union leadership after the General Strike of 1926.


The Second Labour Government 1929-1931

Here the differences between the two wings of the movement really came to a head. At first, with Citrine now firmly established as the voice of a united General Council, the unions enthusiastically funded and helped organise the election victory of May 1929. In return, they had Manifesto commitments to repeal the hated 1927 Trade Disputes & Trade Unions Act, by which a vindictive Tory party sought to weaken the union funding link for the Labour Party and debar civil servants and local government official unions from affiliating to the TUC or Labour Party. Relations were reasonable between MacDonald, again Prime Minister, and even Bevin, who was given membership of the important Macmillan committee inquiry into the financial system as it affected industry. (He and Citrine were offered peerages, which they refused). However, little tangible legislation emerged in the first year to satisfy the extensive union reform demands.

The Wall Street crash and the Great Depression which followed, had entirely undermined any attempts to address that programme. To make matters worse, reform (not repeal) of the 1927 Act which was offered in the Bill which emerged in 1930, was to be ‘nobbled’ by the Liberals, now under Lloyd George, allied with the Tories. They voted to dilute that Bill further at the Committee stage. So, the TUC asked for it to be withdrawn in disgust. This example of Liberal indiscipline (even though they were offered serious electoral reform), undermined MacDonald’s whole parliamentary strategy for staying in office and lost him the confidence of the TUC and the unions.

Despite this, Citrine pressed MacDonald to repair fences. The TUC leader asked him, ‘to adopt some organised arrangement to avert the differences of 1924. Such an arrangement could readily be made, and it should be continu­ous and official. I do not think that any advantage is gained by the Labour Party’s denying its relations with the Trades Union Congress. Perhaps the National Joint Council idea with regular meetings could help to establish contact.’  But the lack of meaningful consultation prevented serious engagement with the TUC General Council. MacDonald, and especially Philip Snowden, the Chancellor, would not agree to any such an arrangement, fearing it would lay the government open to criti­cism that it was ‘being run by an outside body’, or ‘dictated to by the trade unions.’  Margaret Bondfield, then Minister of Labour, confidentially advised Citrine not to write to MacDonald on TUC-­headed paper. She said that when circulated round the Cabinet, his letters riled members of the Cabinet as ‘dictation by Transport House’. Far from seeking any improper domination by the unions, Citrine was urging a proper open relationship.

Of course, there was no guarantee that the General Council under Bevin’s (Keynesian) tutelage would come round to a compromise in the time available, but we will never know. The Labour leaders always underestimated the maturity of the union side, even when Citrine’s moderating influence on behalf of the General Coun­cil was surer (he had just suffered a serious nervous breakdown).  In any case, with Snowden threatening resignation, no formal arrangement was agreed, leading to the fall of the government in August 1931.

So, in the fevered atmosphere of the full-scale international financial crisis focussed on sterling in the early months of 1931, Snowden’s tough full austerity programme (including heavy unemployment benefit cuts), triggered a crisis in the Labour movement. He had adopted the Liberal-inspired May Committee’s extreme budgetary measures for responding to the crisis and rejected all Labour attempts to modify them. These measures were then pressed on the Labour Cabinet on the insistence of the Opposition leaders and the international bankers. However, the TUC, under Bevin’s driving influence, stiffened the Parliamentary and Labour Party to resist, leading to a split in the Cabinet and MacDonald’s defection to form a ‘National’ government with the Opposition parties.

 In my biography of Walter Citrine, these internal TUC leadership pressures and the roles which Bevin and Citrine played, are fully explored. What is not in doubt is that the outcome was disastrous for the Labour Party in Opposition and the trade unions. MacDonald, Snowden and their new allies, persuaded the country in a general election that the unions had interfered in the democratic process, split the Cabinet and brought down the elected government. In that bitter election campaign of May 1931, the TUC were vilified for walking away from their responsibilities leaving the ‘National’ government to tackle the crisis. The Labour Party, pilloried by their former leaders in this way, were slaughtered electorally, being reduced to a rump of 46 (51 including the ILP).

In this dire situation, the unions rallied the movement to regroup, with Arthur Henderson, the former Foreign Secretary (who had led the Cabinet resistance), becoming the caretaker leader for a couple of years. Citrine then pressed for and got his proposal for the National Joint Council (which became the National Council of Labour in 1934). This established a formal structure for regular liaison and joint policymaking.

Now a shame-faced Party leadership felt they had no alternative but to ‘put up with’ overt union policy input. As joint secretary, Citrine played a major part in the effective operation of this joint committee, which Lord Alan Bullock thought transformed Labour’s fortunes in the 1930s. Some historians later disparagingly referred to the Labour Party as the ‘General Council’s Party’, in this period. This is mainly a reference to the TUC’s influence on Labour’s pacifist tradition, when Citrine and Bevin, through the National Council of Labour, steered the Opposition towards rearmament against fascist Germany. The NCL was also responsible for many other policies on economic and industrial policies – such as, the Welfare State, National Insurance and nationalisation - which would bear fruit in the 1945-51 Labour government.   


Conclusion and recommendations

Are there lessons for today from these early union/Labour experiences? We can suggest a few. First, the complex nature of the historic relationship must be recognised. British unions, representing one of the first organised working classes, created (with the socialist organisations and some very able political leaders), a unique social democratic alliance. Because it was an organic growth, it was not always easy to promote the optimum interplay of both union and Labour sides, but its vigour changed the existing two-party system and helped elect Labour governments; a fresh assessment of this history is needed.

Secondly, however, it is important to recognise that this relationship was never easy. The progress of this alliance, first tested in the minority government of 1924, was bedevilled by  powerful union/Party leader clashes and mutual recrimination. A very cautious and remote MacDonald in government made no effort to engage with the new TUC left leadership. In any case, many of the key union leaders were attracted to ideological concepts of ‘industrial unionism’ as the vehicle of social change instead of parliamentary methods. Angered by the failure of the government to introduce even an instalment of legislative measures, they saw no reason to moderate the wages struggle.  This issue would loom large in every future term of Labour government (even that of 1945-51, when major reform was carried out).

Tested again in the second minority government of 1929-31, which was soon derailed by an international financial crisis, the alliance fell apart and suffered electoral wipe-out. Fortunately, the TUC had by then assumed an important and authoritative role as the independent union centre, with its General Council delegating authority to its General Secretary to act on its behalf. This enabled the TUC to rally both sides to regroup under the umbrella liaison committee of the National Council of Labour which became instrumental in changing Labour policies and making it a substantial social democratic force from 1945-51.  

The complexity of the three-party Commons which Labour’s advance brought about had not been anticipated by the unions or factored into their deliberations.  They did not understand the limitations it would impose on a Labour leadership in government seeking to manage the economy and promote social change. Had the unions been brought in with an effective consultative process, they would have been more likely to sustain the Labour government, even in adversity, as they did during World War 2.

Finally, perhaps the single most important lesson relates to the highly successful but little noticed role of the National Council of Labour – an open, regular process of discussion and serious engagement of senior leaders from both sides on important policies. That experience could provide an instructive model of how an effective working relationship could be sustained and strengthened in the future.That long term framework is the only example in history of a successful relationship, which led to the best Labour government we have ever had. 

The current Labour leadership will be well aware of the advantages of having a stronger relationship with the trades union movement, but lack a framework in which it could be brought about satisfactorily. Citrine at the TUC had the authority to speak for most of the General Council, while they in turn commanded widespread support of the major union leaders for their initiatives. Today’s situation will require different arrangements, but the TUC seems again to be the most representative body, not least because of the importance of non-Labour affiliated unions and its wider focus generally. Unions must also recognise the sensitivity of Labour’s parliamentary representatives being pilloried in the media of owing their position to union votes (as Ed Miliband suffered from).  

So, the first step is a recognition of the advantages of such a body, properly designed and structured for today. For that matter, while openly canvassing its unique Labour history and pedigree, such a body should always be prepared to sit down with leaders of the other parties to inform its own discussions and influence them. Such a body would be purely advisory, but its advice would have to be seen to be taken seriously.  

Easy to say, harder to design such a system in practice, but the advantages of prioritising such an exercise cannot be overestimated.  

  • Tags:

Related Policy Papers

Related Opinion Articles


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More